The difficulty in discussing free will in fiction is that fictional characters have no free will. Whether the characters are aware of it or not, there definitely is an all powerful creator (or creators) who dictates their every move, thought, act, and word. Characters’ choices are fated to happen.
That’s not as true for video games, which have the additional factor of player interaction. Sure, the story only continues if you run to the right, but Mario has the option of just standing there, twiddling his thumbs. And if it’s a sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto or a sprawling role playing game like Final Fantasy, the player is actively encouraged to go left, try mini-games and side quests, explore the world, take up odd jobs like taxi driver or chocobo farmer.
But still, there’s “the narrative,” the choices the player has to make in order to move the story forward. The narrative is a tyrant, even in BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age that famously reward player choices with alternate versions of the same story. But in the end it is the same story. No matter what missions you go on, no matter which side you fight for, or whom you love, you always end up fighting the Reapers. No matter what you choose you end up on the same path.
Which brings us to BioShock Infinite. Like the original, BioShock Infinite is about free will. In BioShock, the question is whether we can make our own choices in the face of social conditioning, physical addictions, and overwhelming authority, and the answer is yes, we can. In BioShock Infinite, however, the question is whether we really make any choices at all, or if we are simply fated to do whatever we were always going to do, i.e. are we slaves to the narrative? And the answer is that the narrative rules all.
In BioShock Infinite, the year is 1912 and you are Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton who, in exchange for having all his debts forgiven, agrees to rescue a young woman from the flying city of Columbia. Once you have beaten the game, after you’ve killed your last man, blown up your last mechanical Abe Lincoln, crashed your last zeppelin, Elizabeth, the woman you rescue, gains god-like awareness of all space and time, not just everything that has and will happen, but everything that didn’t happen here, but did in alternate timelines. And she shows you that there are infinite Booker DeWitts out there, all stuck following the same narrative (hence the title).
The thing is, Booker isn’t fated to live out the same life by anyone or anything within the story. He just lives in a determinist universe where he has to do whatever he will do in the future because, from Elizabeth’s outside perspective, he already has.
Though it’s obvious why Booker would want to escape his fate (and this is the big spoiler, so, fair warning). Booker himself is responsible for Elizabeth’s captivity. Twenty years earlier, Booker sold his daughter, the infant Elizabeth, to pay off his gambling debts, and the game drives home the point that he is, was, and will be fated to make his mistakes by forcing the player to travel back in time to actively choose to do the crime themselves. Booker literally cannot leave a room until the player chooses to hand over his child. And every Booker DeWitt out there did/does/will do the same thing.
Infinite Booker DeWitts all trapped in the same story neatly describes Booker’s existence as a video game character. In a sense, there are as many Bookers out there as there are saved files. Some Bookers are cautious, using cover, a murder of crows, and a sniper rifle to make it through the game. Some are reckless, setting themselves on fire, swinging from a skyline and wading into crowds of thugs to beat them to death by hand. Some Bookers run through Columbia as quickly as possible to get Elizabeth to safety. Others let her hang out while they explore every trash can and corpse looking for salt. But no matter how the Bookers choose to get there, they cannot help but choose to go to the same place. The game won’t let them. There are no left or right turns, and you can’t go back to levels you’ve already explored. Storywise, the only choice the players can make is go forward or do nothing at all.
In the original BioShock, you can exercise your free will by leaving the storyline to return to places you’ve already visited, and choosing to save little girls at the cost of your own power gets you the best ending and an achievement. But in BioShock Infinite, choosing to kill a man or let him live has less effect on the story than choosing whether Elizabeth wears a bird or a cage necklace. The game, through Elizabeth, flat out tells you that you cannot change the ending, even if you play the game again and make completely different choices. Then the game practically begs you to try anyway.
For one thing, the only way to challenge Elizabeth’s claim is to go back and make all the opposite choices to see if they have any real effect at all (they do not). For another, after learning how Booker’s history is intimately entwined with the city of Columbia, the story, settings, and dialogue of BioShock Infinite have new meanings, and the way to reread the text is to replay the game. And finally, the hardest difficulty setting is unlocked after you beat the game, and there’s an achievement for beating it, so there’s that.
The ultimate tragedy of BioShock Infinite is not that Booker has been dead the whole time (that’s old hat), it’s that Booker DeWitt can never really die. If Booker falls off a ledge, drowns, or is crushed by a giant cyborg, the game just pretends that didn’t happen and brings him back only a little worse for wear. Coming back from the dead isn’t just part of the game, it’s part of the narrative. Even if you win and bring Booker’s story to its natural conclusion, Booker lives again as soon as you or anyone restarts. And no matter how many times he lives, or how hard he avoids it, Booker cannot help but re-enact the same mistakes he always makes.
Characters stuck in a narrative loop recall Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which is also about free will in a fictional and therefore determinist universe. Like a video game, a play may vary staging by staging, but by the end of every performance of Hamlet (and for that matter, every performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, only to live and die again the next night, and the next, ad infinitum, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. BioShock Infinite invites the comparison, as early on in the game, the “twins” Rosalind and Robert Lutece flip a coin that only turns up heads.
Like Elizabeth, the “twins,” actually the same scientist from two different realities, see the world from outside time and space, see Booker as both alive and dead, and as who he is and all the men he could be. They show up to give you cryptic advice throughout the game, but they are not talking in riddles because they are unhelpful; it’s because their situation is confusing and hard to describe, even for them. Their conversation about the proper grammar for alternate history time travel is hilarious.
They are stand-ins for the creators of the narrative. Rosalind Lutece created the science that floats the city and rips holes in reality, and she’s the one who brought Robert Lutece to Columbia. Robert Lutece, for his part, is the one that insisted Booker DeWitt be brought in to rescue Elizabeth. The major difference between the two is that Rosalind is a determinist, and since she has a machine that lets her see the future, she has reason to believe she’s right. Robert, however, thinks what they see are only probabilities, and that the future can still be changed. In this way, Rosalind is a stand-in for Ken Levine, the game designer, who created the setting and plot of the game, and Robert is a stand-in for the player, invited into this world by its creator and determined to change its fate.
Designer and player, the twin gods of a video game character. The one that made their world and the one that controls their actions. Is Booker DeWitt a puppet? Yes, of course he is. He’s the player’s puppet. So the question becomes, does the player have free will? In terms of the narrative, the answer is yes, but it’s limited. The player cannot change the ending, but they can choose not to play. If the player never engages with the story, then the narrative never happens, Elizabeth is never captured, and she and Booker DeWitt can live happily ever after, somewhere else.